Preservation poses both problems and unanticipated potential. National Trust President Richard Moe has recently distinguished preservation from history, and by history I assume that he means scholarly disciplines for interpreting the past which include history, archeology, and architectural history. During his welcoming address at the 2001 National Preservation Conference, Moe correctly pointed out that preservation is concerned with the future as much as the past. However, there is, even more, a deeper dimension of meaning that is seldom addressed but which is occasionally hinted at, such as Moe’s observation that “what preservation is all about” is passing on the knowledge of “who we are, where we came from, and what is the legacy that shapes and enriches us.”
This sense of the meaning, or significance, of history and place is often obscured by preservation when it focuses on preserving old things without asking what they mean (Lewis, 1975: p. 6; French, 1980: pp. 182-192; Jameson, 1997: p. 13; Murtagh, 1988: p. 167). It is this dimension of meaning that calls for a “new” paradigm for preservation. However, this would not be simply a “new” paradigm, for its roots are to be found in ageold human experiences reflecting the impulse to find meaning in historic places. In calling for a new paradigm, we are also simultaneously calling for the recovery of a more ancient one. In that preservation is based upon a recovery of the past through a return to our roots, we can speak of the paradigm implicit in preservation as “radical preservation,” in that “radical” pertains to roots.
The Genesis of Historic Preservation
Historic preservation movements tended to arise in response to the disruption and destruction of traditional communities as a process whereby “landscape symbols are promoted to alleviate stress through creation of shared symbolic structures that validate, if not actually define, social claims to space and time.” The originating forces were therefore not simply concerned with saving “old things,” but instead attempted to articulate and promote place symbols that expressed a sense of purpose and identity, a sense of participation in something that transcended individual existence (Datel, 1990; Datel, 1985; Rowntree and Conkey, 1980).
The volume With Heritage So Rich, which provided the basis of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), observed that mobility and change had left Americans with “a feeling of rootlessness combined with a longing for those landmarks of the past which give us a sense of stability and belonging.” It then rather prophetically stated that:
If the preservation movement is to be successful, it must go beyond saving bricks and mortar. It must go beyond saving occasional historic houses and opening museums. It must be more than a cult of antiquarians. It must do more than revere a few precious national shrines. It must attempt to give a sense of orientation to our society, using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place (Special Committee on Historic Preservation, 1983: p. 193).
Thus at the birth of this key legislation, there was a strong word of warning to see beyond the “bricks and mortar” to a transcendental dimension associated with a sense of order and identity. However, little did anyone grasp the problems that would be incurred by institutionalizing preservation within a social and intellectual milieu that had abandoned the requisite standards of understanding. As legislation was written and organizations were created, inherently flawed understandings were institutionalized and promulgated by a flurry of activity focused on technical and regulatory matters.
Defining “Significance” in Technical Terms
An example of these flaws is in the term “significance” which plays a critical role in preservation legislation and regulations. At a 1998 conference, “Preservation: Of What, For Whom?” held at Goucher College in Maryland, Katherine H. Stevenson, associate director of Cultural Resources, National Park Service, observed that “historical significance is one of the most important concepts in the work of the national historic preservation program. This concept is the central, defining core of our programs because it specifies the universe of properties that we recognize, protect, provide assistance to, and interpret.” Yet the notion of significance was based upon an erroneous assumption: that significance is a characteristic inherent in a property -- that is to say, that it exists in a property. For example, NHPA states that “The quality of significance…is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects” which possess integrity and meet at least one of the four National Register criteria of significance [emphasis added]. All of these criteria were based upon objective and associative characteristics, implying that significance is intrinsic to a property and has nothing to do with the foundational issue of meaning (Tainter and Lucas, 1983: pp. 708-712; cf. King, 1998: p. 87).
To equate significance with intrinsic characteristics is a direct legacy of the shift in Western thought and educational practice that occurred during the 19th century. Until then, the notion of education was still linked to the tradition of the humanities, which was centered around basic questions regarding the nature of human existence. More than mere “training,” liberal education addressed the totality of a person’s experience. Its emphasis was not so much on technical knowledge as it was upon philosophic and practical wisdom, which would aid a person in knowing what was the good in life (Tingley, 2000: pp. 29, 33-34).
However, as the result of the growth and increased specialization of the sciences, this broader vision was lost to a new idea in education, the production of specialized knowledge through methodologies -- “cognitive procedures… that aim to secure knowledge” (Tingley, 2000: p. 31). Methodologies stipulate what is and what is not accepted evidence, thereby channeling our understanding of truth into narrow categories, largely empirical ones, over which we seem to have control. The theorists of the modern university determined that the objects of humane studies, such as art, literature, philosophy, and religion, would be better served if they were remodeled on the basis of the new methods of knowing. Falling outside the pale of concern are such integral aspects of human existence as values, purposes, and existential meaning, the very qualities that are basic to understanding significance in preservation (Smith, 1992: pp. 14-16).
At the root of this diminished understanding is a more fundamental problem: the promotion of the image of humans as detached observers for whom reality is reduced to little more than “objective facts.” This ignores the obvious insight that humans are not merely observers but participants in reality. Our participatory role is especially critical in understanding preservation in that we deal with places that we both study and live in and with a history that is both a story that we tell and one in which we participate as actors. History is partially knowable, but it is also ultimately a mystery invoking transcendental horizons and age-old questions of why we exist, where we come from, and where we are going.
The failure to recognize resonances arising from our participation in history could only adversely affect our understanding of historic places. Noting that “in ordinary life, some people still do grasp a place as a whole through a balanced experience of intellect, common sense, feeling, and imagination,” Professor E. V. Walter observed that this intuition tends to be lost as places are viewed through the filters of modern education, whose technical languages “do not express the unity and coherence of this holistic experience” (Walter, 1988: p. 2).
Consequently, as Professor Frits Pannekoek has noted, we have seen the rise and dominance of “heritage professionals,” whose university education reflects rather narrow disciplinary interests. Unable to convincingly articulate an understanding of significance, the emphasis shifts away from the “spiritual” aspects to the “material” and the “physical” (Pannekoek, 1998: p. 30). So significance comes to be understood as little more than an intrinsic character in certain old things, something that can be easily studied and preserved without regard to its meaning within society.
Insights from Other World Views
Nevertheless, even with the institutionalized forces of modernism against it, multidimensional human experience has continued to assert itself. The spiritual is being forced into public attention by communities for whom archeological, historical, and natural sites often represent manifestations of the sacred. Summarizing from a variety of studies concerning the sacred places of North American Indians, Australian aborigines, Sub-Saharan Africans, and Europeans, a recent anthology -- Sacred Sites, Sacred Places -- argues that “there are different ways of knowing about the earth, about sacred places, and about archaeological sites. Some of the ways are scientific and some are spiritual. One way of knowing does not negate the validity of another....” (Carmichael et al., 1994: p. 7).
The emergence of these critical issues caused Gary White Deer, vice president of Keepers of the Treasures, to call for a mediation “between spirit and science” and the need for a “new paradigm” that would include both “the sacred and the secular” (White Deer, 1997: p. 43; cf. Zimmerman 1997: p. 56; Elliott, 1999). Such a paradigm would respect the work of scholarly disciplines while simultaneously integrating them into a more holistic framework.
Here insights from phenomenology offer much potential for preservation. Phenomenology asserts that “the world can be understood only in its reference to man” (Relph 1970: 195). Realizing that the world is only known through our conscious experience and that facts are, in part, constructs of our experience, phenomenology interprets the world, as we know it, as a matrix representing the interplay of subjective and objective. The everyday world of man’s immediate experience is “the context within which consciousness is revealed…. It is anchored in a past and directed toward a future; it is a shared horizon, though each individual may construe it in a uniquely personal way” (Buttimer, 1976: p. 281).
The phenomenological approach is of particular relevance when dealing with the questions of significance for preservation. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has pointed out that significance is integrally related to an orientation to something higher that gives purpose and identity. He wrote that “a phenomenon has meaning because it is a sign to something beyond itself, to its own past and future, and to other objects. The significant object or event has the seeming capacity to condense the diverse strains of the universe into a thing within human reach. It is this attribute which enables anyone who beholds, or participates in, a thing or event to respond to it personally and meaningfully” (Tuan, 1971: p. 184).
If a historic place is such a phenomenon, then the term “significant” should be used in preservation to describe places whose physical character and matrices of historical, mythical, and social associations can and do evoke experiences of awe, wonder, beauty, and identity, among others. We refer to these as experiences of transcendence because they, like experiences of the sacred, transcend or “point beyond…. the normal, everyday world” (Berger, 1969: pp. 65-66; cf. Roy, 2001: pp. 3-8), reflecting glimmers of awareness of our participation in a reality that transcends our isolated individuality.
Toward a “Radical” Preservation
It can be concluded that the focus of preservation on significance should be not merely on objective characteristics and associations but also on experiences of transcendence that are evoked by historic places (Archibald, 1999: p. 133; Tilden, 1977: pp. 106- 115). This requires, as Walter noted, a broadening of our understanding to recover an “environmental awareness… [that] is not lost but driven underground.” Consequently, we must cultivate “some old perspectives to grasp things whole and entire. We need to recover a way of thinking that ancient people took for granted.… We need to experience the world in a radically old way” (Walter, 1988: p. 3).
Light can be shed upon this “radically old way” of understanding the experiential foundations of preservation through an examination of St. Augustine. At the center of his thought lies the theme of a fallen, dying world, the world of the past and of its cultural achievements. In The City of God, written in the aftermath of the fall of Rome to the Visigoths, Augustine meditatively explored the relationship between the accumulation of images from the past and the ideals available to humans. Avoiding a naïve antiquarianism, which separated the past from the present, he saw the past of memory and the future of anticipation as integral parts of present experience, with the past serving as an inner teacher that provides imperfect images of more transcendent goals. This interplay of past and future, object and value, experience and symbol, was nicely captured by Robert S. Dupree: “The shards of the past are both remembrances and foreshadowings of the community that resides in human hope and the spirit, the ‘sacrament’ of community” (Dupree, 1983: pp. 133-136).
These thoughts have hopefully illustrated that significance is far more than objective characteristics and associations to be understood from only a methodological perspective, and that preservation must go beyond merely preserving old things. A radical preservation will entail an empathetic understanding of the inner resonances evoked by places -- the transcendental experiences, including the experiences of beauty, community identity, and the sacred. It will ultimately require looking at preservation in a much larger context and recovering a “radically old” way of seeing our world.
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Publication Date: Spring 2002